On a trek through Italy, alumni bring the best of their IWU experiences full circle.
Story by Nancy Steele Brokaw ’71
The IWU group marveled at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the reproduction of Michelangelo’s
David in the Piazza della Signora in Florence.
For over 40 years, one of the richest experiences of Illinois Wesleyan students (including
myself) has been the chance to travel abroad and — as a group — experience the eye-opening,
occasionally life-changing, richness of another culture.
In 1970, as an Illinois Wesleyan sophomore, I traveled to Europe on a Short Term (later
called January Term, then May Term) trip about Romanesque and Gothic Art, led by Professor
of Religion Emeritus Jerry Stone. It’s my best memory from college.
Beginning this year, IWU is offering alumni an opportunity do it all over again. And
for those who missed the travel abroad experience the first time around, here comes
a second chance to fill in that educational hole.
Call it “May Term” for alumni.
“So many IWU students traveled as part of their college experience,” says Director
of Alumni Relations Ann Harding, “and this gives them a chance to continue that as
Alumni of large universities have long had access to such trips and, in fact, it was
Pat Wilson who first proposed the idea at Illinois Wesleyan because she and her husband,
President Richard F. Wilson, had found it to be such a great experience during their
tenure at the University of Illinois. The Wilsons accompanied an IWU alumni group
on a trip to Russia in August, and found it equally rewarding.
“It’s another way for the University to connect with alumni and with each other,”
Pat Wilson says.
When the Illinois Wesleyan brochure luring me to “Chianti in a Tuscan Villa” arrived,
I was tempted. Why not let someone else figure out the best place to stay, how to
get around, and where to eat? In short, why not let others do all the work so I could
have all the fun?
I was after convenience. I’ve planned trips to Europe before and I know what’s involved.
This time around, I wanted to skip the late night, neck-throbbing Google travel searches
and the inevitable stomach lurch when I hit “Buy” on those expensive airline tickets.
The University carefully researched and then chose a professional tour company — AHI
International — to partner with on the trips. IWU Associate Vice President for Major
Gifts Steve Seibring ’81 says, “We interviewed nearly a dozen different schools about
the companies they used for alumni travel programs. We discovered AHI was the most
popular in terms of its educational component and as well as their general thoroughness.
AHI is popular with Ivy League schools, Big Ten universities and small, private colleges.
That’s why we chose them.”
In addition to famous works like the David, the group saw beautiful, lesser-known
art like this mosaic tympanum on the Duomo in Lucca.
The price was also right. IWU sought a middle-of-the-road travel company, one that
offered solid quality somewhere between bargain rates and extravagance. Plus, there
is definitely economy of scale when traveling with a group. All that worked for me.
And it would be a relief not to be whipping out my Visa card five times a day or figuring
out tips in Euros.
There was only one stumbling block for me. Surely I was too young. At 57, I’m merely
on the cusp of middle age. My parents took tours, for heaven’s sake.
I called my daughter Katie ’02, a veteran of two European May Term trips. “Want to
take an IWU alumni trip to Tuscany?” I asked. (Her dad, my husband Tom ’71, had declined,
mumbling something about a fishing trip in Canada.) Katie mulled the proposition for
something less than a millisecond. “Absolutely,” she replied. “Book it.”
Well, good, I figured. Katie’s 30 years younger than I am. Let her be the youngest
person on the trip. (She wasn’t.)
We set out in June, part of a group of fourteen IWU alums and spouses on the program’s
maiden excursion, a nine-day trip to Italy’s Tuscan region.
There were 34 people on our trip, 14 connected to IWU and 20 others, almost all of
whom were affiliated with Northwestern University. Our ages spanned high school to
a gentleman in his 80s. I fell in the middle, age-wise, of the IWU alums.
Not that it mattered.
We had so much fun together that by the graduation ceremony (yep, we had one), we
were bonded as tightly as a closing campfire “Kum Ba Yah.” And it was fun being combined
with Northwestern alumni. Katie and I did our best to defend our Titan pride in nightly
Scrabble matches against our new, good friends from “the purple school.”
Nancy and Katie Brokaw (left) and Sue Seibring (right) enjoy a delicious Italian lunch
in Lucca. The group sampled plenty of Tuscan food and wine during the trip.
The Illinois Wesleyan alumni came from across America: Georgia, California, Michigan,
Ohio and Illinois. We worked at (or were retired from) a variety of careers: CEO,
teacher, attorney, freelance writer and more. Yet somehow we all had similar sensibilities.
Like a functional family with diverse interests, we had an awful lot of fun around
the dinner table.
“Italy had been on my and Becky’s ‘to do’ list for years,” says Dave Myers ’66, “and
when we saw an IWU connection, we jumped at it.”
Guy Gebhardt ’69 and his wife Paulette echo the sentiment. “The entire week was magnificent,”
Guy says. “It was wonderful to share the experience with other alumni.”
Guy adds, “I finally saw the art and architecture we learned about in our Humanities
course [with Professor Doris Myers] in 1968.”
I hadn’t counted on the “fun of group learning” dimension of the trip. We had opportunities
to attend a variety of lectures on subjects such as “The History of Tuscany,” “Renaissance
Art,” and “A Contemporary View of Italy.” We were offered a cooking demonstration
and a chance to meet with locals to discuss everything from how they keep their teenagers
out of trouble to the larger implications of the European Union.
The trip had a lot of built-in flexibility. There were blocks of time in every day
and in every city for us to venture out on our own. Katie and I chose to spend an
entire day in Florence by ourselves, as did many others, using the helpful group bus
to get us there and back.
I asked Jerry Stone, leader of my January Term trip of 37 years ago, if the morphing
of that kind of student experience into something alumni could enjoy surprised him.
It did not.
“Trips like that create a sort of pilgrimage community,” says Stone, who led eight
more trips after the one I was on. “When you go in a group, there’s an interactive
dynamic and the experience becomes even more complex. There’s something about a community
sharing that opens up so many possibilities.”
It can’t be said better than that.
From the window of their hotel, the tourists could see the gently rolling hills of
Tuscany. “Every day on the trip held its own particular treasures,” Brokaw writes.
Every day on the trip held its own particular treasures. One day, our bus wound through
the sun-warmed Elsa Valley and we marveled at the complex geometry of the rows of
olive trees and vineyards draped over the hills. Later, we traveled to Castello di
Monsanto in the heart of Chianti to tour the dusky wine cellars and taste the region’s
We took a leaning Titans picture in Pisa. In Lucca, we lunched on ravioli and tiramisu
under a tent. We were quietly awed by the magnificent duomos — and by a local, village
chapel where a portrait of the Virgin Mary gazed out over handpicked flowers and burning
In Florence, we posed at the Ponte Vecchio, marveled that we thought we “knew” Michelangelo’s
David but were dazzled nonetheless and bargained with the leather merchants for a
great deal. In the seven-towered, medieval city of San Gimignano, we were all caught
in a moment that erased centuries when the Sunday noontime ringing of the church bells
clattered up and down the ancient stone streets.
At the end of a touring day, we slumped, foot-weary, into our bus seats. On the ride
home we were lulled by the melodious voice of our tour guide Ines as she described,
syllable by lovely, Italian-laced syllable, our four-course menu for the evening.
And that, arguably, was the best part of the day, the sharing and comparing, the food
and the wine, the stories and the laughter.
What we had in common was Illinois Wesleyan. Two of us, Carol Kempen Sabourin ’75
and Denise Rose ’74, were roommates back in Ferguson. Seven of us were parents of
Titans. We had a ready-made bond that cemented into friendship, toasted with all that
IWU alumni will travel to China in September 2008. For more information about the
China trip and other upcoming alumni adventures, visit www.titanpride.org or click here.
Seibring and his wife Sue ’82 took us out for an all-Illinois Wesleyan gathering.
Judy Zawacke ’68 remembers it this way. “It was a beautiful, warm evening in the tiny
village of Tavernelle, Italy,” she said. “We are all graduates, spouses, and family
of IWU, gathered to sample local wine and share our personal stories. Despite our
various ages and times, the love and appreciation for this institution is universal.”
Would I do it again? In a second.
So would IWU Associate Provost Roger Schnaitter and his wife Nancy Cosner ’73. They
report, “Tuscany continues to resonate through our lives now that we are back in Illinois,
from searching out a D. H. Lawrence book on the area to replicating the container
plantings of Tuscany to renting Tea with Mussolini to see San Gimigano and Florence again.”
Ann Harding anticipates lots of growth in the IWU alumni trips, including perhaps
also offering shorter, stateside, weekend excursions. “This is a new activity for
Illinois Wesleyan alums but it goes hand-in-hand with the basics of the education
they received as students,” she says.
“When college days are fully past and gone,” goes the first line in the Illinois Wesleyan
alma mater song. But here’s the good news: on a trip with your fellow alums, those
college days are back, and better than ever.
To read about upcoming travel trips sponsored by the IWU Alumni Association, go to
the Association’s Web site at www.titanpride.org or click here.